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As the founder of a new or growing startup, do you know what the most important aspect of your business is? Most people give answers like: the product, the customer or the brand. But do you want to know the real answer? To be you!
You are the single most important element of your growing startup. This will not always be true, but it is true today. You can think of it as the analogy of a parent and a child. It is impossible for a baby to be safe, happy and healthy without a parent taking care of him. Babies need the support, care, nourishment and strategic leadership of a parent to have a chance to grow up happy and healthy. Eventually, there comes a time when that child becomes a teenager and becomes capable of a measure of independence. For many years, however, the parent is the most essential ingredient.
There may come a time when your business can thrive without you — Apple and Steve Jobs are prime examples — but when you first start up and scale, the business demands the best of you. Unfortunately, many companies never reach their full growth potential because the founder falls victim to burnout. I would encourage you to proactively fight founder burnout before it has a chance to destroy yours.
Related: Recognizing and Beating Burnout?
What is founder burnout?
In May 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included “burnout” in its international classification of diseases. While it didn’t go so far as to call it a medical condition, it did label it as an “occupational phenomenon.”
According to the WHO“Burnout is a syndrome thought to result from chronic stress at work that has not been successfully treated.” It is characterized by three specific dimensions:
Feelings of exhaustion or depletion of energy
Increased mental distance from work and/or feelings of cynicism and negativity related to work or profession
Decreased professional efficacy
While burnout is something that professionals at all levels of professional life deal with, there is a special “variant” unofficially known as “founder burnout” that affects… you guessed it… founders.
I’ve heard founders say things like:
My company just raised $90 million, but I’m so exhausted I want to quit.
We just expanded to six locations across the country. I want out, but don’t want to leave my team hanging.
I don’t feel like I have a purpose in life – just a business I’m grinding to keep alive.
I’ve spent the last five years of my life growing this business, but I’m tired and don’t think we can sell the business.
These may seem like anomalies, but sentiments like this are more common than you might think. If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone. The symptoms of founder burnout include depression, anxiety, isolation, escapism, apathy, and exhaustion. It’s a feeling of losing your touch. In short, startups are difficult. You feel trapped, but at the same time you hesitate to leave when the opportunity arises.
Related: This Founder Believes He Found the Answer to Burnout
Causes of founder burnout
Burnout can be scary, alarming, and frustrating — especially when you realize you’ve worked your whole life to get to this moment and can’t seem to get any joy or satisfaction out of it now. So, where does it start? Here are a few possible causes:
Misalignment between vision and reality: As founders, we often start companies with a specific purpose, mission or vision. Unfortunately, circumstances change, hinges take place and the reality is often very different. When this mismatch between your original vision and the reality of the company becomes too severe, it creates a sense of helplessness and confusion. You start to wonder why you actually do what you do.
Lack of passion: Burnout is rare when the founder has real passion. It almost always pops up with people chasing a business idea that is outside their true domain of passion. For example, someone who starts an accounting software company because they see the financial potential, but their real passion is being outdoors and spending time in nature. That lack of passion will eventually catch up with the founder.
Too much control: If you are personally involved in every single project, task and decision within your company, you will become exhausted. As the business grows, this becomes more and more unsustainable. You will feel the pressure so high that you will hate the company.
No work-life balance: In most cases, burnout is directly related to a lack of work-life balance. There is nothing else that binds or holds you to reality. Your whole world is built around your business, making you feel like you can’t escape.
There are dozens of other contributing factors, but this at least gives you an idea of some of the driving forces behind founder burnout.
Related: 7 Tips to Avoid Burnout When Growing a Business
How to overcome founder burnout?
Overcoming burnout is not easy, but it is possible. The key is to act quickly and be proactive at the first sign that something is wrong. Here are a few tips:
1. Start the day right
Avoid waking up and jumping straight to work. You need some time to prepare for the day. Take at least 60 minutes in the morning and start the day completely disconnected. Try meditation, journaling, or even exercise.
2. Go Fast With Dopamine
dr. Cameron Sepah believes that one of the best ways to break the cycle of burnout is through something he “dopamine fastThe idea is that your brain is constantly exposed to quick, cheap bursts of dopamine throughout the day, which makes it difficult to reach a true state of flux. Dopamine fasting—meaning you disconnect from your screens, devices, and apps—you can give your brain a rest and allow it to reset and calibrate.
It’s a good idea to include daily dopamine fasting in the form of at least two hours of downtime every night. Play with your kids, take a walk or read a fiction book. Just stay away from your screen and work related tasks. It’s also smart to fast on dopamine for longer, meaning you have a full day off once a week (such as on Sunday).
3. Take care of yourself
Finally, make sure to take care of your mind and body with things like good sleep, healthy eating, hydration, exercise, and meditation/prayer. If you do these things on a daily basis, you are much less prone to burnout.
At this stage of the game, you are the most important capital of your startup. Don’t let burnout jeopardize the business or disrupt your momentum. Learn how to identify it so you can overcome it. That is the key to your success.